There’s something incredibly exciting about entering the real life world of spies. The British “Spy School” during the second world war was at Bletchley Park – responsible for breaking the Enigma Code and sparking the development of the modern computer. I would love to have been part of the code breaking team back then, as I’m sure my teenage spy, Sam Trowel (The Plotting Shed), would have too.
The second world war lasted from 1939 – 1945 and Britain became the centre of codebreaking for the Allies. The Government Code and Cypher School made Bletchley Park, located in Milton Keynes, its headquarters for codebreakers. The staff that worked here found ways to intercept the plans of the Axis Powers on many occasions, greatly affecting the outcome of the war and ultimately shortening it by between two and four years. Bletchley Park was given many aliases, and was known as ‘B.P.’ ‘Station X,’ ‘Government Communications Headquarters,’ and ‘London Signals Intelligence Centre.’
In May 1938, in anticipation of war, the head of the British Intelligence Service, Admiral Sir Hugh Sinclair, purchased Bletchley Park. He had inspected the site, along with other servicemen, and believed that its central location would serve the government’s needs ideally. Many of the codebreakers were expected to come from Oxford and Cambridge, and the property was located across from Bletchley Railway Station which had direct access to both universities. The main road also linked London to Bletchley Park, and there was a telegraph and telephone repeater station nearby.
On August 15, 1939, the first employees at Bletchley Park began working, and consisted of a diverse group. The British war offices recruited codebreakers from civilians by organising a crossword competition, after which those who did well were asked to help in the war effort because their lateral thinking would be an asset to codebreaking. They also included linguists and chess champions as a part of the staff. The enemy used electromechanical cipher machines, which would require formally trained mathematicians to help decipher. In addition, a notably large number of females were recruited as part of the team. When the United States joined the war some of their personnel also began working closely with the British personnel at Bletchley Park, from May 1943 until the end of the war.
By 1945, there were more than 10,000 members of staff at Bletchley Park, 75% of which were women. Initial training took place at the Inter-Service Special Intelligence School, also known as the country’s ‘Spy School.’ Recruiters then immediately began working long hours that reportedly affected their health and social life. The high levels of concentration required and small amount of vacation time given caused many employees to collapse and be granted extended leave, during the time that Bletchley Park was operational.
The organisation was Britain’s ‘Ultra Secret,’ which was the highest level of secrecy possible during the war. Staff members were required to sign a secrecy act, which included a warning that they weren’t even to talk among themselves on the site. Despite these extreme precautions, secrets were leaked and one of the most prolific Russian spies, John Cairncross, infiltrated Bletchley leaking classified ‘ultra’ material to Moscow. Even after The Soviet Union became an ally, they were not officially told about the existence of Bletchley Park and its existence was kept a secret even after the war ended.